DeKalb studying once-weekly trash pickup

DeKalb County sanitation worker Larry Wyatt dumps trash into the truck.

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DeKalb County sanitation worker Larry Wyatt dumps trash into the truck.

Three times a week, more than 120 sanitation trucks hit the streets of DeKalb County, picking up garbage, recyclables and lawn waste.

In a county where residents don’t hesitate to complain about the local government, many say trash pickup is one of the services that DeKalb gets right.

So much is on the line when the county launches a pilot program next week designed to help it switch to once-weekly collections.

“We aim to please. That’s effectively our mission,” said Gordon Burkette, director of Keep DeKalb Beautiful. “We want to see if we can switch to a single day, save on costs and still offer the best service.”

The county is spending $1.9 million on 65-gallon rolling carts for 28,000 homeowners in the county and the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, Dunwoody and Lithonia. Right now, residents use their own trash cans or leave out garbage in tied bags.

Residents will wheel the carts to the street every week, where they will be collected by traditional trucks or partially or fully automated loaders.

Over time, officials think it will save money — up to $6 million by early estimates — and time. But it could be a hard sell to residents, accustomed to low cost and good service among metro Atlanta counties, to sign off on change.

Homeowners now pay a $265 annual fee with their property taxes for service, with no limit to how much they can put out for pick up. Residents must sign up for recycling, but 18-gallon recycling bins and a box of 100 recycling bags are given to subscribers for free.

By comparison, neighboring Gwinnett County charges $218 and $120 a year for once weekly trash and yard waste pickup, respectively. The recycling cost is embedded in the trash collection fee.

DeKalb has kept its rate low in part by owning its own landfill on Seminole Road. But it floated the idea of reduced service, or a $40 fee hike, last year as a way to extend the landfill’s life.

In a survey conducted by Kennesaw Research Center, more than 60 percent of residents favored the reduced service over a fee hike. But some residents have already criticized the new carts designed to make modernize the department along with changing collection.

“It’s ridiculous the size of these cans,” said Eva Wollert, a retired teacher whose townhome community near Decatur is in the pilot program. “We have a lot of people who won’t be able to get their can from the rear of their building without hurting themselves. They haven’t thought it through.”

The county plans to take that feedback into consideration and will survey both residents in the pilot program as well as workers. It also will study costs, such as gas usage and truck repairs, to analyze possible savings.

There are no plans to cut jobs, even if the pilot shows collection can shift from the current three-person crews to the one- or two-member teams needed for automated collection.

Extra workers would likely be re-assigned to handle litter collection or county right-of-ways mowing.

And DeKalb could still save money if automation reduces on-the-job injuries, as expected. The county has spent $1 million in worker compensation claims for sanitation workers during the past three years.